Motorcycle racing championships are like a pendulum, flowing back and forth between one rider and another, between one manufacturer and another. One year, Yamaha is on top, the next, it's Honda. One year, Yamaha manages to exploit the rules best, the next year it's Honda.
On the evidence of the first two days of testing – scant evidence indeed, but all we have to go on at the moment – conditions appear to favor Honda. With a liter less fuel to play with, and the new tires being introduced by Bridgestone, it looks like the tide is flowing Honda's way, while Yamaha is set to suffer. For the Factory Option entries at least; in the Open category, the tide is flowing very firmly in the other direction, with Aleix Espargaro and the NGM Forward Yamaha blowing Honda's production racer out of the water.
That the fuel reduction would favor the Honda was expected, but the advantage might be bigger than Yamaha would like to admit. After a tough first day of testing, Jorge Lorenzo spent all of Wednesday trying to recover his confidence in the bike, as his crew searched for a set up that would smooth power delivery and give him the precise throttle control his high-lean-angle – and high risk – strategy demands. They were successful, at least in renewing Lorenzo's confidence in the bike, he told the press.
A change to the electronics gave him the feeling he had with last year's machine, and he was able to ride more freely. With that change made, he went in search of a fast lap, setting it at around 3:30pm, in the hottest part of the day. Given the disastrous effects on grip with the heat has at Sepang, setting a fast time at that point in the day means there is more to come. Fuel, however, remains a problem which Yamaha's engineers will likely face all year.
A more pressing problem could turn out to be the new spec of rear tire Bridgestone has brought to the test. The Honda riders were impressed, praising the way the tire worked in the conditions, and commenting that it was definitely an option they could use in a racing situation. It was a better replacement for the hard tire which had hardly been used in 2012 and 2013, Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez said. At Yamaha, the feedback was diametrically opposite. Jorge Lorenzo dismissed the tire completely, saying that all it did was spin, providing neither grip nor drive. Valentino Rossi said it produced vibration, concurring with his teammate that it provided little grip.
The biggest downside to a spec tire is that changes to the tire require a redesign of the bike (usually minor, but a significant investment nonetheless). Honda suffered with the new front Bridgestone introduced early in 2012, taking most of that season to get the bike sorted. If the new rear Bridgestone is accepted, Yamaha face a similar situation this year. The combination of less fuel and a tire which doesn't suit them could mean the Japanese factory is in for a tough year.
Honda, meanwhile, have no problem at all with fuel. Neither Marc Marquez nor Dani Pedrosa were working on fuel consumption, something which every Yamaha rider was doing, telling reporters that the hot weather at Sepang meant that the bikes used less fuel anyway. An ominous portent for the Yamaha team.
What Honda had been working on was a new chassis. Both Pedrosa and Marquez had tested it, Pedrosa generally positive, while Marquez was ambivalent. It was better in braking, but it made the bike more nervous in the fast corners – 'the place where you can take advantage', Marquez explained. They were due to make another evaluation tomorrow, along with a long run to test tire life and race set up, something all the teams were looking at.
Fuel isn't a problem for the NGM Forward machines of Aleix Espargaro and Colin Edwards either. With 24 liters instead of 20, the Open class bikes are incredibly quick, at least in the hands of Aleix. The elder of the Espargaro brothers has been impressive on both days of testing, and posted a time of 2:00.547 early in the session. He was elated, but also realistic, saying that fast laps were possible in the early part of the race, while he expected to suffer in the last seven laps of the race, as tire wear took its toll. He had impressed his veteran teammate Colin Edwards with his pace, prompting the Texan to quip, 'It would be nice to be 25 again. Fresh balls and full of p*ss and vinegar.'
So on the face of it, it's advantage Honda, with three Hondas on top and four Yamahas behind. But a closer look makes it clear it isn't that simple. Marc Marquez was fastest, with a lap of 1:59.926, just three tenths off the outright fastest lap around Sepang set by Casey Stoner. But behind him, Marquez had a gap of four tenths of a second to Dani Pedrosa, while the difference between Pedrosa in second and Bradley Smith in seventh was just just over a quarter of a second. While Marquez is in a world of his own, the gap between the rest of the Hondas and Yamahas is negligible. Yamaha may be struggling with fuel and the new tires, but they are not as far behind as you might expect.
Ducati, also, were not as far behind as they might have feared. Andrea Iannone is having a very impressive test, free as a satellite rider is to concentrate on bike set up and setting a fast lap. His 2:00.855 was impressive indeed, the fastest Ducati round Sepang since 2012, when Valentino Rossi was just a few hundredths quicker. He posted another sub-2:01 lap, and a whole host of other 2:01s.
The factory riders, too, were faster than the Ducatis of the past couple of years. Andrea Dovizioso's low 2:01 was better than any Ducati lap at Sepang last year, as was Cal Crutchlow's mid-2:01. Both Ducati riders spent all day on the GP14, working on find the best setting for the new chassis. The new bike offers a clear improvement on corner entry, but the two men remained both realistic and diplomatic. They can brake later, and enter the corner better, but the understeer and the lack of grip on corner exit remain. Ducati still faces a mountain of work.
As does Honda, ironically. Or at least, should they choose to do it. Nicky Hayden had spent all day watching other riders fire past on the gas, losing out on the underpowered Honda RCV1000R. He had spent the day working on electronics and most importantly, on adapting his riding style once again, learning to brake much deeper than the Ducati he had spent the last five years on allowed. Much faster on corner entry, and still with more to make up, Hayden cut the gap by over a second. That still left him 2.3 seconds behind Marc Marquez, though the gap to Dani Pedrosa in 2nd place was slashed to under 2 seconds. He had been expecting so much more, however. 'If I'm honest, it's a bit demoralizing seeing the gap so big,' Hayden told reporters. The Aspar team would soon run out of options with the bike set up, leaving them needing more power, something only Honda can provide. Given how asthmatic the bike sounds down the front straight, there is clearly room for improvement. Whether Honda is prepared to provide it is another question altogether. Perhaps if Aleix Espargaro keeps dominating the Open class, they could be persuaded to supply a few upgrades. For the moment, Hayden is left riding what feels more like a Honda Cub than a Honda RC213V. A frustrating experience at Sepang, but perhaps he will stand more chance once MotoGP hits Jerez.